Stories from the Flight Deck...
4:40 EDT – Portland, Maine / Flight Log: March 6th, 2015
It was coming up on 17 years I had flown for Mr. Frederick; 17 good years. He always treated me well and whenever he was the only passenger on board, he would often invite me to dinner with him wherever we happened to be. We would exchange mostly frivolous conversation, which he seemed to enjoy. He was an intense individual by nature and so I think he enjoyed my sense of humor as levity to the otherwise demanding life he led. Still I was careful to not “get loose” with him as I’m inclined to do on occasion with my mates. The boss is the boss…and in this kind of job, it’s never a good idea to let that hierarchy get out of balance.
Edwin Alton Frederick had made his money fairly early in life becoming a millionaire by the time he was 30. He was a coffee importer and routinely traveled back-and-forth to places like Colombia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. His first jet had been a Lear 55 back in the early 90s but since that time he had progressively worked his way up through the echelons; first with the falcon 50 then a Gulfstream lV and, as of ten months ago, a new Gulfstream 650.
The boss had always looked at his aircraft as tools more than anything or at least that's what he projected but in the case of the 650 he was more proud of it than anything he had ever owned or aspired to. He had employed an outside designer and labored with both her and Gulfstream's design department to get the interior perfect. She was quite elegant but not over-the-top. He always said he wanted the cabin to feel like his living room at home and save the curved sidewalls, that’s pretty much the way her cabins look and feel. It is comfortable, inviting and he’s always anxious to bring his colleagues and friends aboard.
More than most men I know, the boss has a refined appreciation for things. I never felt like he took for granted anything he has, including his family, the multiple homes he owned or even the clothes he wore. He had grown up the son of a policeman in Boothbay, MN (up the coast from Portland) where he shared a small house with four siblings. As he often said “we didn’t have two nickels to rub together” referring to his upbringing.
He appreciated the life he had and the journey that got him there. He was an innately skilled businessman and could smell bullshit a mile down the tracks. But with people he liked, he was always gracious and humble.
Just out of college, he bought a small coffee store in Portland where he had spent his adolescent years. It eventually lead to opening two more and that eventually led to meeting the “new products director” for Whole Foods in 2000. Whole Foods had purchased a piece of land in Portland’s central business district and were planning to build their first store in the state of Maine. They were seeking to have a local independent coffee bar inside the store.
When the opportunity came along he decided to make a trip to Costa Rica where his own coffee had been grown and supplied to him. He made three trips to a small village called Monteverde and before it was done he had locked up a deal to supply coffee to 29 whole foods in the northern tier states. The boss was a personable soft-spoken man and it's clear to me that his original desire was not to make a fortune but to bring a new coffee experience to his customers and see and feel the coffee beans in the soil from which they came.
At any rate, by the time he was 32, he sat on a coffee importing empire that stretched from Vancouver to Atlanta. And while he was proud of his accomplishments, I never got the sense that his demeanor and overall persona was much different than it had been back when he started that first coffee store.
Today had started plenty early. It was about 4:45 AM and we were getting the 650 spooled up...
The boss had called me two afternoons earlier and asked me to file a flight plan to Puerto Natales, in the central part of Patagonia, an almost 11 hour journey from Portland.
The boss had a nose for coffee so he didn't even necessarily need to taste it; he just had to smell the beans and get a sense about where they were grown. Tomorrow he was scheduled to meet with two plantation owners that had just merged their farming operations and were seeking to export their coffee into Europe. It was an exciting time. I didn't know a lot of the particulars but what he had shared with me made it clear that this deal, if he could close it, would be the largest single distributorship of his career and would offer up a welcome alternative to Starbuck’s in cities all across Europe. He had set up 11 small test markets, three of them in Prague, two more in Vienna and four in the outer boroughs of London. Customer reaction was through the roof which gave him all the validation he needed to pull the trigger on the deal and establish his distribution network over the next six to nine months.
It was early March and the pre-dawn air temperature was 11°; not uncommon for Maine this time of year. The cabin was almost as cold as the outside air when my crew and I arrived. I rubbed my hands as I crawled into the cockpit to fire up the APU.
The boss hadn't arrived yet but he wanted to be in the air by 5:30 so I knew he would be driving through the gates of the FBO at any moment.
It wasn't hard to spot his car. It was a Range Rover unlike any you’d find in the showroom. And it’s color matched the G650 identically.
The design team at Gulfstream / Long Beach had presented several paint schemes, all of which the boss had politely declined. In fact his delayed decisions over paint was holding up the delivery of the aircraft when one day he showed up and spilled a small sack of coffee out onto the conference table. He told the designers this was the color he wanted. Three days later the sample was complete; a stunning rich coffee brown with a slight infusion of pearl essence. After looking at it only a few minutes he signed the order and the plane went in for paint.
The aircraft had an uncommonly appealing signature and she was particularly beautiful in the morning or evening light. She had no stripes or markings of any kind other than the ‘November’ registration on the tail. The boss was proud of his decision about the exterior and it was often that I received comments from FBO ground personnel and others about her unusual appeal.
Inside the aircraft there was a large candy bowl that had been hard mounted onto a long credenza on the aircraft’s right side in the main cabin. It was filled with a sweet licorice candy that looked exactly like coffee beans; exactly. Guests mostly assumed it WAS coffee beans and rarely partook. To say the boss was proud from where his fortune originated, was an understatement. He was constantly giving bags of fresh new coffee to friends, that had been grown in this region or that, in order to get their opinion. But it was rare they ever had more to say than he himself. For him coffee was much more than a drink. It was a delicacy and a ritual to be taken seriously.
Right on schedule the gate opened and in came the boss in the Rover. He was the ultimate light traveler; rarely showing up with anything more than a duffel and a coffee earn bearing his company’s name: Jolt. As he came up the stairway I could see his breath in the cold morning air.
"Morning Jack" he said with a smile. "Hope I didn't get you out of bed too early."
"Never been to Patagonia," I said "kinda looking forward to this one." Our flight attendant Mandy took his coat and we closed the door immediately in order to get the cabin warm.
My first officer Peter Boles keyed the radio.
“Portland this is echo foxtrot two-niner… we're rolling.”
“Echo foxtrot you're cleared for three one left.”
At 5:21 we were airborne and climbed out as the pink light of dawn crested the eastern horizon. We made a slow right turn to bring us onto our southerly heading. It provided a gorgeous view of Portland bay and the coastline stretching South.
The one thing that was so noticeably different about the 650 versus other aircraft the boss had owned was how incredibly quiet she was. Even in the main cabin the high-pitched whine of the engines were dampened, almost to the point of being soothing.
We leveled off at 46,000 and the stars were still well in view above us. Our ETA showed to be 16:20 local and except for a few thunderstorms over the Yucatán peninsula, the weather showed otherwise good all the way down.
About an hour into the flight the boss called me back to have breakfast with him. He wanted to discuss the practicality of building our own hangar in Portland versus continuing to lease, as we had for more than seven years. But before I could even get the butter on my toast Mandy had showed up saying my first officer needed me on the flight deck.
I excused myself and went forward.
“What's up Mark?”
“Not sure Jack but the autopilot keeps re-trimming to keep us at 460.”
I immediately looked at our airspeed and it was constant but I could see from the computer that the autopilot had also been adjusting the throttles to accommodate the increased nose up attitude.
If our angle of attack continued to increase then we would get stall warnings and we were slowly approaching that now. I crawled back into my seat and took the controls. I then asked Mark to disable the autopilot. As soon as he did I held the throttles steady and almost immediately began to observe we were losing airspeed.
This was a serious situation and it was made worse by the fact that we were a T-Tail aircraft; all of which are prone to deep stall – a condition that renders the tail surfaces ineffective much quicker than other aircraft.
I pushed the joystick forward which lessened our angle of attack and kept us out of stall range but whatever was causing the issue wasn’t going away and it sure wasn’t going to allow the continuation of our flight plan. I called Mandy up, told her briefly what our problem was and asked her to go back and tell the boss we were going to have to make an emergency landing. “Remove the breakfast and tell him to strap in….you do the same across from him. Do you understand?” She looked frightened but didn’t question me. She closed the cockpit door behind her.
I had to keep us in a nose down attitude to keep the stall condition at bay – basically exchanging altitude for airspeed. And whatever it was, was continuing to counter-load my actions. I tried right rudder and put us in a gentle turn to the left – which made the effect worse. I tried banking to the left instead and for whatever reason, it eased the loading.
But no matter what, we had to get on the ground and controlling our rate of descent was going to be difficult. Normal descent rate is 3:1 (three miles of travel per 1000 ft. of descent) but in order to maintain our airspeed, our descent rate was almost 2.5 times that. That sharply limited our options on places to land. And finding an airport was only part of the problem. There was a good chance we would not be able flare the aircraft as we would in a normal approach – but instead would need to execute a power-on landing. And that meant we needed a long runway.
I checked the GPS. We were 155 miles north of Boston’s Logan which has a 10,081 ft. runway but is also full of commercial traffic; plus it was almost 30 miles further downrange from where we needed at our present descent rate. There were two other options that better suited our trajectory but one had a very marginal runway length and both were uncontrolled – which meant there would be no emergency services if we ran into trouble on landing. Whatever decision we made, it had to be fast. I looked at Mark and almost simultaneously we both said “Boston.” “Make the call,” I said.
“Boston this is Gulfstream Echo Foxtrot two-niner zero, we have an emergency.”
“Echo Foxtrot, this is Boston ATC, state your emergency.”
“We have a malfunctioning control surface and are unable to maintain level flight or climb. We need a landing solution that will require a direct approach on your 33 Left.”
“Copy, Gulfstream, what is your current position?”
“We are 136 miles north, north-east and passing through Flight Level 310. We have limited ability to control our rate of descent.”
“Copy, Gulfstream, we have you. Stand by.”
“Gulfstream we have fairly heavy commuter traffic this morning. We will need to clear a path. What is your current rate of descent?”
“Boston, we're currently descending 2100 ft. per minute, ETA approximately 12 minutes but our trajectory will put us shy of you by 28 miles...
Our plan is to level off if possible in short durations to gain the extra distance.”
“Copy that, Gulfstream….what is your fuel load?”
“We’re heavy…currently showing 39,120 lbs.”
“Are you planning to dump fuel, Gulfstream?”
“Copy Gulfstream, suggest doing that sooner than later.”
By lightening our load we could likely decrease our rate of descent and gain some of that 28 extra miles – plus reducing the risk of a fire or explosion (God forbid) if things didn’t play out as planned. My heart was racing. In my 23 years of operating turbine aircraft, I hadn’t encountered anything like this outside the simulator. But that’s what they’re for and I hoped all that training would pay off in the next few minutes. We had ONE shot at this.
The intercom chimed: “Jack, what the hell’s going on? You’re making us a little nervous back here.”
“Mr. Frederick we have a malfunctioning tail surface that is forcing us to land and it’s going to be tricky. Please let us focus up here...we’ll be on the ground in a few minutes.”
The only way we could control our rate of descent at this point was by pulling the nose up just long enough to gain some distance but without losing too much airspeed and getting us back into a stall condition. The maneuvers had to be staged. We initiated our fuel dump over water and got rid of everything but 3000 lbs. I could feel the aircraft reacting. Both tactics were paying off. Mark and I were both confident we could make 33 Left but entering a normal pattern was out of the question…we had to go straight in.
“Gulfstream this is Boston….we have you cleared for direct ILS approach on 33 Left. How are you looking?”
“I think we’ve got the extra distance made Boston, but I just hope we have enough runway. We’re concerned about getting her on the ground. We calculate 160 knots at touchdown – power on.”
“You’ll be fine Gulfstream, you have 26 knots on the nose and 10,000 feet of roll out.”
Another tactic I planned to employ was “slipping” the aircraft on final approach. Slipping (or yawing) refers to adding left or right rudder to place the aircraft at angle to the runway. It’s a way of slowing the aircraft without increasing the nose up attitude. I was pretty confident we could do this but it was the one-shot thing that bothered me. If anything went wrong on approach or landing, our situation would not allow a stable climb out or go around. We were committed and that was that.
By now we were only six miles out and descending at more than twice the normal approach rate – not to mention our speed, which was 170 knots.
“Gulfstream, we have emergency equipment standing by.”
“Copy Boston…thank you.”
The altimeter was reeling and it was very unusual to see the ground coming up this fast. We had 33 Left in sight. Visibility was good.
I knew the boss was shitting a brick right now but I fought to keep that thought from invading my focus.
At 300ft I called for 30% flaps and began to slip the aircraft without changing our slight nose down attitude. Both tactics were slowing our ground-speed but I had to have our nose up before we touched down. At 100ft I began pulling back on the stick slightly. At 50ft we were almost level but the nose was trying to pitch up and we were still too fast. I straightened the aircraft up at this point and that only made us faster. At 15 feet I raised the nose just high enough to allow the main gear to touch down first.
Ground effect was holding us off and we were using up runway fast. A second later, I cut our power to idle and we touched down hard. It felt like all three gears touched at once. I applied full brake and reverse thrusters.
As it turns out, we came to a stop with almost 1500 ft. of runway left but my ass was still puckered. I moved us off 33L quickly in order to restore inbound traffic.
“Congratulations Gulfstream….well done! Do you need emergency assist?”
“Thanks Boston….thanks for clearing us a path!”
I then taxied the aircraft to Signature, our contract FBO and while Mark was powering us down, I unbelted and went into the main cabin. The boss was as white as a sheet but tried to maintain his cool.
“Jack does this mean we’re not having breakfast?”
I smiled. “No, actually I’m famished and didn’t even get my toast buttered…Mandy, will you set a place for four and let’s skip the coffee. I don’t think any of us need it.”
I told Mark to leave the APU running and we all sat and had breakfast while I explained what had happened.
The next day, Signature’s mechanics determined that a small piece of corroded iron which presumably delaminated from the ceiling structure of our Portland Hangar, fell and lodged itself in the space that separated the horizontal stabilizer from the elevator control surface. The otherwise benign iron flake had expanded into galvanic corrosion on contact with the moist salty air on climb out - effectively causing it to harden and bond with the aircraft’s metal surfaces. By the time we were at altitude, the sub-zero temperatures exacerbated the condition and eventually restricted the full range of upward motion for the control surface and almost caused a disaster.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
It was fairly common for the boss to give me what he called a “sampler” of this coffee or that. It was usually a 2lb cotton bag with the growers stamp on it and a wooden date coin attached to its drawstring.
By now we had made three trips to Puerto Natales and two trips to multiple destinations across Europe. The Boss had succeeded in establishing the biggest coffee import distributorship in Europe – besides Starbucks. If he hadn’t been rich enough, he certainly was now.
We had just returned to Portland and as I was going to meet my wife who had driven up to get me, the boss asked me to come into the operations office of our NEW hangar.
“Jack I know I’ve given you more coffee than you and Kate could ever drink but this one I think you’ll really like. I suggest you open it right away and try it.”
“Thanks Boss. We will do for sure.”
The next morning, I told Kate about the new sampler and she just rolled her eyes.
“Really Jack? I mean, I love coffee but I can’t even hardly tell the difference anymore.”
For almost three weeks, the sampler sat in our mudroom along with several other unopened bags. But for whatever reason, one Sunday morning, I pulled it out and ripped off the rope seal. I went to scoop out a cup for the grinder and discovered an envelope with “Jack and Kate” hand-scripted on the front. I opened it.
Inside was a handwritten note.
You know how people often say, ”I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you?” Well I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, literally! You saved my life. Hell you saved all our lives back in Boston that morning Jack. You’re a good man and I value both your service to me, and your friendship.
I hope this will in part acknowledge my debt to you.
With the note was a securities certificate in mine and Kate’s name for 50,000 shares of JOLT EU, the independent venture he had formed for the new distributorship. The shares had opened at $ 6.00 but since then it had split twice and the shares were now trading at $ 28.00.
The certificate in total was worth $1,400,000 and some change!
We ground up some of the coffee. We both agreed, it was somehow the best cup of coffee we’d ever had!